Life, or Something Like It

Travis Jeppesen at the 66th Berlinale Film Festival

Sion Sono, A Man’s Flower Road, 1986, color, sound, 110 minutes.

“I WANT TO THROW KING KONG off the Empire State Building!” shrieks Sion Sono in A Man’s Flower Road, an epic of shrieking, absurdist retardation from 1986. The film was recently restored for “Hachimiri Madness,” a series of Japanese “punk” movies from the 1970s and ’80s, an indisputable highlight of this year’s Berlinale.

Okay, so maybe not all of the series’ films directly reference the noisy punk and garage rock that their makers were listening to at the time, but it doesn’t matter: They are great odes to youth, or at least that period when the contents of the self are often uncontainable and frequently spill out or erupt, splattering bodies and streets. The protagonist of A Man’s Flower Road spends the first half of the film running through the streets and screaming at the top of his lungs, naked save for a red raincoat that frequently flops open, exposing him to passersby who hardly have time to register shock thanks to his madman pace.

Many of these films are essentially plotless, or else the plots are so convoluted that they are impossible to follow. At one point in Flower Road, the red raincoated freak finds himself fighting in a filthy river with a rival while, off-camera, two young women discuss what they will eat at a nearby café. In Happiness Avenue, the most cohesive feature-length work in the series (in that it manages to mostly sustain the propulsive force of its energy throughout), shot when director Kastuyuki Hirano was twenty-two, a young man runs up to a pair of drag queens on the street and begs them to teach him how to turn gay. They respond by beating him and dragging him screaming through the streets. Somehow, the entire ensemble ends up walking through the village sewer, where they spend the rest of the film.

I read somewhere that these filmmakers were allegedly inspired by the Nouvelle Vague, but I say: fuck that. Godard never made Brigitte Bardot wade through a river of shit. These films grab as much from their country’s own unique history of horniness. This is the place that gave the world Butoh, Kabuki, sumo wrestling, Yukio Mishima, Merzbow, and used-panty vending machines; let’s add these films to that venerable list. If at times they force you to suffer through long stretches of great boredom—Yamamoto Masashi’s meandering Saint Terrorism is only occasionally saved by short bursts of pornography—this only indicates the extent to which they are truer to life than to cinema.

With the awarding of this year’s Golden Bear to a documentary (Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare, about the impact of the European refugee crisis on a small island midway between Italy and Libya), for the first time in recent memory, “real life” was the recurring winner throughout the festival. Indeed, in terms of general quality, this year clearly tilted toward documentary. Alex Gibney’s Zero Days, also in the main competition, is sure to become one of the most discussed political documentaries. Ostensibly about the mysterious computer virus Stuxnet, a covert US-Israeli operation designed to destabilize Iranian nuclear reactors, the film is actually about the scary reality of twenty-first century cyberwarfare. Zero Days shows that the technology that governments now have access to can do a lot more than merely infect enemy computers with spyware; it can attack virtually any piece of infrastructure, from nuclear power plants to water-filtration systems and beyond, causing death and destruction on a mass scale. What’s even more frightening is that, unlike nuclear treaties, there are no international regulations governing such technology. The overriding morality is “whatever you can get away with.”

Lee Dong-ha, Weekends, 2016, color, sound, 98 minutes.

Michael Moore’s latest, Where to Invade Next, which depicts European socialism (good) and American capitalism (bad) in black-and-white terms, was greeted with cheers and boos in equal measure at its first press screening. The mostly European audience presumably held a more nuanced view of the sociopolitical situation in their respective countries. Meanwhile, two films in the Panorama section—Lee Dong-ha’s Weekends and Sophia Luvarà’s Inside the Chinese Closet (2015)—showed the potentially ruinous effects of widespread homophobia in South Korea and China, and the ways in which certain young people are attempting to live through it.

On the less journalistic side, a number of works in the traditionally more “experimental” Forum program demonstrated the prowess with which certain filmmakers continue to challenge the limitations of the genre. In Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens, one can readily observe the influence of James Benning’s politically charged landscape filmmaking—and that’s hardly a bad thing. More than an exercise in ruin porn, Geyrhalter’s depiction of neglected built spaces renders a mesmerizing portrait of a species known for its rich, diverse array of creations—and its propensity to abandon those very accomplishments.

The 66th Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin ran February 11 through February 21, 2016.